Saturday, May 4, 2013

Things I've been working on: an essay on free women of the old South

Obligations at school and work have prevented me from posting, but final exams will be over after next week. I wrote an essay for one class on the history of the American South which, as you might surmise, has nothing to do with medievalism, but I'm posting it here anyway for posterity's sake. My chosen topic was about the free women of the old South (between the Revolution and the Civil War). The paper will seem stilted by the confines of academic expectations which cramp my usual style, so I don't consider it my magnum opus by any means. Still, it was a product of solid research which deserves to be shared among anyone who's interested in American history.

The Unsung Contributions of Free Women in the Old South

by James Griffin

            When speaking of free women in the old South, popular culture might prejudice our imaginations with a picture of a southern belle in an impractical hoop skirt, riding across the plantation to a cotillion ball in the hope of being swept off her feet by a charming beau who will wed and transform her into a plantation mistress just like her mother and grandmother before her.  These tropes were built upon a long tradition of popular literature written by southerners themselves, culminating with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind in 1936.  The lady on the pages of fiction was an ideal of femininity, domesticity, and charm; but the firsthand accounts of antebellum ladies reveal that it was an ideal more aspired to than achieved.  It was, furthermore, an impossible standard for the great majority of southern women in the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War who, if not enslaved, still had to work for the survival of their families.  My research has illuminated a world where women of the planter aristocracy were only a small, although influential portion of a population with widely divergent occupations, responsibilities, and values.  Yeoman farmers, market traders, urban seamstresses and factory workers, and even nuns all lived in a South with values and tribulations which stood worlds apart from the idyllic plantation life of the fictional belles.  There was, however, at least one common condition they shared with the women of the upper crust: they all labored under a patriarchal system which strived to segregate the activities of men and women, the first to the public sphere and the second to the private.  Therefore, the vital role which free women performed in their households and economy was destined to be obscured by time.

Portrait of Mary Boykin Chesnut

            Posterity’s richest source for the life and experience of any single woman in the old South is undoubtedly the colossal diary kept by Mary Boykin Chesnut during the Civil War.  Chesnut, the daughter of a South Carolina governor and wife of a U.S., then later a Confederate senator and general, was perfectly positioned to record the daily habits and mores of the planter elite.  To describe her daily entertaining of guests during the Chesnuts’ residence in Washington, D.C. in the two years before the election of Lincoln as a wife’s duty would be an understatement, for she relished the city life and the intrigues of politics.  On any given day, Chesnut hosted or paid social calls to other intelligent women from great political families such as Harriet Lane (President Buchanan’s niece and official hostess), Virginia Clay (wife of Senator Clement Clay of Alabama), and Varina Davis, wife of the future Confederate president; a lady whom Chesnut would come to regard as a lifelong friend.[1]  Her biographer, Elisabeth Muhlenfield, relates that
“Because of her facility with French and German, she came to be thought of as one who had no doubt been educated abroad, and found herself a frequent guest at affairs honoring foreign dignitaries.  Once at the White House she was seated for dinner between President Buchanan and a visitor from Spain, so that she might speak to the Spaniard in French and translate for the president.  When she and the visitor became engrossed in conversation, the president bent over to remonstrate with his guest for monopolizing Mrs. Chesnut.”[2]

            How could a woman who was born, raised, and spent most of her life on a plantation in rural South Carolina, so far removed from cosmopolitan hubs such as New York and Philadelphia, have garnered the interest of dignitaries from the royal courts of Europe?  Though it was believed that a lady’s domain was the home, the patriarchs of the South saw it advantageous to provide their daughters with a formal education, as it would make them more alluring matches for prospective husbands.  At the age of 12, Chesnut’s father brought her to Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies, situated in a fashionable district of Charleston, to learn French, music, and social graces.  The curriculum’s limited practical value, combined with the high rates of tuition (Talvande’s school charged $500 a term, not including fees for special instruction in dancing, drawing, or music) ensured that only a small percentage of southern women ever attended these boarding schools.[3]  Talvande’s curriculum was more expansive than usual for a girl’s school in that it also included literature, history, rhetoric, and natural science—all disciplines which can be found referenced in Chesnut’s diary.  Her strongest suit, however, seems to have been in the arts of language and conversation.  As the headmistress’s favorite, she sat at Talvande’s right hand at the dining room.  This arrangement was only modified when Talvande entertained John England, the first Catholic bishop of Charleston, every Wednesday; and then, young Mary was only displaced by one seat.  Therefore, even as a girl, Chesnut was weekly engaged “in conversation between her teacher and one of the foremost Catholic divines of the time.”[4]  
The "sword gates" outside the property which belonged to the Talvande family
By the time Mary left the school to court and wed James Chesnut, Jr., she had learned to read and write German, and had mastered French to the point of occasionally being mistaken for a native.  In the early years of her marriage, before James’ ascent to political office, Mary had no children and no responsibilities, so she occupied her time via the consumption of books.  She read Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Honoré de Balzac in their original French.[5]  Though she read some American literature, she was an Anglophile at heart and devoured both the classics (such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton) and contemporary Victorian authors such as Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and Lord Tennyson.[6]  When living with her in-laws, who jealously guarded the duties of managing the family plantation, Chesnut had enough time to read a book a day, but literature remained a part of her daily activity even when she entertained guests in Washington and Richmond.  Not even Sherman’s march to the sea would keep her from her books: in 1865, as Chesnut fled Columbia, her diary records her having carried off “Shakespeare—Moliere—Sir Thomas Browne—Arabian Nights in French—Pascal’s letters—folk songs”, but no food.[7]    

            Despite her passion for the written word, Mary Chesnut was not merely a bookworm adaptation of the classic belle; rather, she used her gifts to participate in her husband’s political career as far as she was allowed.  When called to the state legislature, the Federal or Confederate capitals, Mary usually accompanied James, acted as his secretary, and “launched herself wholeheartedly into the social side of national politics.”[8]  She was, it could be said, more interested in politics than James himself, for James’ personal code saw the duty of a statesman to act completely without regard to one’s own personal gain.  In the Confederate years, he was too proud to ask President Davis for a commission in the army, or even to campaign for himself in his bid for the Senate.  Mary did what she could: answered letters James had neglected, entertained his guests (which frequently numbered the Davises, the Lees, and other FFV’s [First Families of Virginia], as she called them) in light of his antisocial tendencies, and assisted the ladies’ society of Camden’s work in the war effort.[9]  Mary’s ambition rivaled Lady Macbeth’s, as her diary consistently reveals.  April 27, 1861: “Oh if I could put some of my reckless spirit into these discreet cautious lazy men”.  August 26, 1861: “If Mr C takes a colonelcy I will go as cook—the men fare so badly”.  October 17, 1861: “If I had been a man in this great revolution—I should have either been killed at once or made a name & done some good for my country.  Lord Nelson’s motto would be mine—Victory or Westminster Abbey.”  Cognizant of her own desire for glory through her husband on the eve of the election, she wrote on August 13, “I am trying to look defeat of my personal ambition in the face—So if it does come I can better bear it! & if it does not come the rebound will be so much more delightful.”[10]

            Chesnut’s magnitude of energy and interest in the affairs of state may have been made possible because she had no children to care for in the course of her life, but her lavish lifestyle, like that of her peers, was certainly made possible only through the labor of large numbers of slaves to attend to all the couple’s needs.  The Chesnut fortune, which enabled the couple to travel across the United States and even to Europe, was propped up by hundreds of field slaves laboring from dawn to dusk on the family’s four plantations.  Domestic slaves were needed to carry Mary’s library and luggage from one house to the next.  She relied upon her maid to handle the particulars of her dressing in an age where fashionable society expected her to change clothes as frequently as four times a day.[11]  For a woman who benefited from the condition of slavery and who championed the secessionist cause, a reader of her journal might expect her to also have penned a rallying defense of the “peculiar institution” as a positive good.  On the contrary, Chesnut was well aware of the hypocrisy in a culture which professed honor as the highest good, yet also defended the ownership of people.  She taught her slaves to read and write, though it was against South Carolina law, and “She was proud to boast that her husband never bought but one slave, and that at the slave’s own request, to keep a family intact.”[12]

            Chesnut’s strongest indictment of slavery was the manner in which it corrupted the morals of slaveholding men; for if slave women were property, then it would not be so scandalous to turn to them for sexual pleasure.  Chesnut’s entry for March 18, 1861 rails against the white masters who sleep with their slaves:
“I wonder if it be a sin to think slavery a curse to any land.  Sumner said not one word of this hated institution which is not true.  Men and women are punished when their masters and mistresses are brutes and not when they do wrong—and then we live surrounded by prostitutes…  God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system and wrong and iniquity.  Perhaps the rest of the world is as bad—this only I see.  Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children… Mr. Harris said it was so patriarchal.  So it is—flocks and herds and slaves—and wife Leah does not suffice.  Rachel must be added, if not married.  And all the time they seem to think themselves patterns—models of husbands and fathers.”[13]

            Chesnut’s ire concurs with the experience of Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave who described the many attempts of her master to seduce her in the narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  The plantation mistress could not wholly empathize with a black slave like Jacobs, but Chesnut believed that all women were like slaves to their fathers or husbands because they depended upon those men for their survival and were bound to their authority as much as a slave was: “All married women, all children, and girls who live on in their father’s houses are slaves.”[14]  Her impolite, if not unusual opinions on slavery and women were known to all and made her an awkward presence in the years of her retirement among the villagers of little Camden, South Carolina.

            Mary Chesnut’s Civil War diary, though the longest, was by no means the only one of its kind.  Judith W. McGuire, an Episcopal minister’s wife and self-described “lady of Virginia”, also maintained a diary during the war years, which was published under the title of Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War.  Susan Dabney Smedes published Memorials of a Southern Planter, a biography of her father, a Mississippi plantation owner, in 1887.[15]  The Confederacy’s defeat all sank their fortunes and gave them a taste of hardship, but hard work in impoverished conditions was just another aspect of everyday life for most women in the old South.  Frederick Law Olmstead, a northern journalist and landscape architect, traveled on behalf of the New York Times to write about the slave economy of the South.  Without letters of introduction to the planter aristocracy, Olmstead found himself frequently staying the night at the homes of the yeoman farmers who made up the bulk of the population—lodgings which he invariably judged wanting.  He usually shared a room with others “’in a bed that stank, supplied with but one sheet if any,’ and to make his morning ablutions in a common washbasin that doubled as a bread bowl.”[16]  The yeoman farmer’s crude log cabin, with its lack of books, clocks, upholstered furniture, parlor, or any sense of feminine domesticity, incensed Olmstead’s middle-class sensibilities.  He described a world where slavery sapped everything it touched of all efficiency and prosperity:
“the proportion of the free white men who live as well in any respect as our working classes at the North, on an average, is small, and the citizens of the cotton States, as a whole, are poor. They work little, and that little, badly; they earn little, they sell little; they buy little, and they have little—very little—of the common comforts and consolations of civilized life.”[17]

            In this realm of scarcity, the wives of yeoman farmers worked to ensure that nothing was bought that could not be produced at home.  Some of their duties were considered strictly women’s work, such as the spinning and sewing of clothes for all family members, and the production of milk and butter.  But the family’s livelihood depended on putting as many hands as possible to work on the field, with no respect given to bourgeois gender divisions of labor.  Abner Ginn, a yeoman farmer of South Carolina’s low country, employed his wife and two adult daughters to operate the three plows on their land.[18]  Even the use of slaves did not free farm women from the need to work the soil.  As recorded in the journal of James F. Sloan, this yeoman farmer hired an adolescent slave girl named Manda for four dollars a month in the year of 1859, but it merely supplemented the work performed by himself in addition to his wife and all his children.[19]  But in spite of the vast disparity of wealth between the planter elite and the yeoman farmers, and even the common knowledge to all in the South that yeoman farmers had to employ their wives and daughters in the field, women of the lower classes were still expected to conform to a certain degree of feminine grace when in public.  In 1842, the Gum Branch Baptist Church took notice of a woman who would not attend services on account of her not having a bonnet and shoes for Sunday, and resolved to purchase these accessories for her[20].  Southern literature is virtually silent on the matter of women working on the farms, with the exception of the agricultural press.  In an address given at the Black Oak Agricultural Society, Samuel DuBose remarked that short-staple cotton cultivation was “a labor in which wives and daughters may conveniently and safely share with the husband and father.  While he traces the furrow, they, protected by their sun bonnets, eradicate the weeds with a light hoe.”[21]  Agricultural journals sometimes went so far as to mock what they perceived as the idleness of aristocratic women.  An article in the Farmer and Planter thus states, “Industry and toil make all the difference between the useless and the useful.  Did the world consist of ladies, we should be starved, famished and poisoned”.[22]  

            Though no city of the old South compared in scale to the great hubs of the Northeast, urban women still made up a significant portion of the region’s working class.  Savannah, Georgia’s population stood at more than 22,000 in 1860.[23]  1,305 white women between the ages of twenty and fifty-nine (about a third of all white women in Savannah in the 1860 census) had registered occupations.  Free black women formed a tiny, but well-documented portion of the population.  154, over four-fifths of all free black women from twenty to fifty-nine, were laborers.[24]  White or black, most of these women took jobs because they were the sole breadwinners of their families.  Free black women were overwhelmingly left with children but without husbands, perhaps because the men were still enslaved.  Most white female workers were young Irish immigrants without husbands or marketable skills, and thus filled the ranks of unskilled occupations such as washerwomen and domestic servants.  With no other options, hotels found it cheaper to hire Irish servants over even rented slaves.[25]  Free black and white women both engaged in the clothing trade because it conferred two great benefits.  The first: because everyone needed clothes, or for their clothes to be repaired, the business of seamstressing guaranteed a steady supply of income.  Secondly, the work could be performed in the comforts of home, where they could simultaneously care for their children, if they had any.[26]  

            This study ends with a look at the miniscule communities of women who in certain ways reflected their southern habitat, and in other ways completely defied the greater patriarchal society around them.  These were the convents of religious sisters which stood as lone bastions of a European, Catholic tradition in a Protestant sea which prescribed marriage as the only desirable end for all women.  The Ursuline convent of New Orleans, whose origins dated back to Louisiana’s status as a French colony, was a community of women which owned land, bought and sold slaves, and managed its wealth entirely without the assistance or supervision of men.  Though sworn to poverty, class distinctions still prevailed: women of upper and middle-class backgrounds brought a dowry to the convent and were professed with solemn vows.  They were called “choir nuns” because their vows obliged them to sing the Divine Office in the chapel daily, but they also performed the teaching role of the order and participated in the chapter meetings which decided the community’s financial activities.[27]  Working-class women did not bring dowries, but only took simple vows and were employed in menial labor such as housekeeping and gardening.  The Ursulines of New Orleans used slaves until the end of the Civil War, though revenue from slave labor earned, on average, only about 9 percent of the convent’s total annual income.[28]  Their chief source of revenue was in their original mission of education.  The sisters’ treatment of slaves was unique among plantation owners in that convent lands were never used for cash crops, and that the sisters insisted and enforced marriage between their bondpeople.  The law did not recognize marriage between slaves since the days of the French regime, nor did the average slaveholder see any need to promote it—as a consequence, slave children in Louisiana were typically born out of wedlock, and often sired by the masters themselves.[29]  The Ursulines, in some instances, would buy a slave’s spouse from another owner in order to reunite a family.  Their promotion of marriage was a double-edged sword: in 1843, a slave by the name of Marie Marthe gave birth to an illegitimate child.  After the baby was baptized, Marie was rented out to other employers until she could be sold.[30]

The convent used by the Ursulines of New Orleans from 1751 to 1824.

             Still more could be written about a convent founded specially for free black women in Baltimore, of wage earners in the budding cotton and textile mills in western Virginia, and of prostitutes in Richmond during the Civil War.  The few examples outlined before still suffice to give us a sketch of many Souths, for women’s talents, responsibilities, and culture all strongly varied not only by race, but social class.  Whether on the great plantation, the small family farm, the town, the cloister, or the school, women of these communities rendered an invaluable service to the society at large.  Because they worked chiefly in the private sphere, their deeds and names are not etched in the southern legend beside Jefferson, Jackson, and Lee.  But at the least, readers and enthusiasts of southern history can rest assured that the free women of the old South, perhaps against their best pretensions, were usually not the ornaments of romantic literature.  They managed households, put bread on the table, and taught children how to form ideas.  Without their efforts to make a better living for themselves and their families, the old South, impoverished as it was for most of its citizens, would have been a poorer place still.

[1] Elisabeth Muhlenfield, Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), 69.
[2] Ibid., 68.
[3] Ibid., 26.
[4] Ibid., 27.
[5] Ibid., 53.
[6] Ibid., 51.
[7] Mary Boykin Chesnut, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, ed. C. Vann Woodward (Binghamton, NY: Vail-Ballou Press, 1981), 761.
[8] Muhlenfield, 65.
[9] Ibid., 115.
[10] This set of quotes from the diary is grouped together in Muhlenfield, 114-115.
[11] Ibid., 65.
[12] C. Vann Woodward, introduction to Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, xlix.
[13] Chesnut, 30-31.
[14] Ibid., 729.
[15] “Summary of Memorials of a Southern Planter”, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, accessed April 25, 2013,
[16] Stephanie McCurry, “Producing Dependence: Women, Work, and Yeoman Households in Low-Country South Carolina”, in Neither Lady nor Slave: Working Women of the Old South, ed. Susanna Delfino and Michele Gillespie (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 56.
[17] Frederick Law Olmstead, The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States (New York: Mason Brothers, 1861), 13.
[18] McCurry, 56.
[19] Ibid., 63.
[20] Ibid., 70.
[21] Ibid., 61.
[22] D. Harland Hagler, “The Ideal Woman in the Antebellum South: Lady or Farmwife?”, in The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Southern Historical Association, August 1980), 412. Accessed on JSTOR:
[23] Timothy J. Lockley, “Spheres of Influence: Working White and Black Women in Antebellum Savannah”, in Neither Lady nor Slave, 103.
[24] Ibid., 104.
[25] Ibid., 111.
[26] Ibid., 114.
[27] Emily Clark, “Peculiar Professionals: The Financial Strategies of the New Orleans Ursulines”, in Neither Lady nor Slave, 199.
[28] Ibid., 205.
[29] Ibid., 208.
[30] Ibid., 212.

1 comment:

  1. Abner Ginn was my gggg grandfather. Very interesting!